In Design: The Print Project

Feature by Lauren Strain | 05 Sep 2016

As part of our series looking at great design in the North, we speak to The Print Project, who've spent the last six years making stunning art using technology that's more than 500 years old.

Based in Shipley, West Yorkshire, Print Project designers Nick Loaring and Lucy Johnson use six letterpress machines and a vast collection of wood and metal type to hand craft high-quality, vibrant prints, including gig posters for local promoters Golden Cabinet.

Their work has appeared in Creative Review and Design Week, they regularly exhibit across the UK and they encourage others to get hands-on and learn about the letterpress process through workshops held at their premises, print fairs and festivals. 

While working with vintage machines including a Heidelberg Platen and a Korrex Nürnberg, they also innovate and "challenge perceptions of what letterpress printing is or should be," including laser-cutting their own type to use alongside original pieces. "I love it when someone asks me if my posters are screen printed and when I tell them they’re letterpress they nearly fall through the floor (or look at you as if you’ve just farted)," says Nick. 

We asked Nick about their story, influences and the joys and pains of working with analogue tech. 

The Skinny: Where did your passion for letterpress come from?

Nick: Sometime in 1996 I stumbled across a case of wood type in a bric-a-brac shop in Settle. It was covered in years of muck and dust and smelled funny. Needless to say I was smitten, so handed over £25 and walked out of the shop with no idea what I was going to do with it.

Some ten years later a printing press was acquired for the price of a tank of diesel – it lived in a shed in bits for a further four years. I moved back to Bradford in 2010 and a friend told me about a printing press that had been donated to the 1 in 12 Club that I might be interested in. So my life as a graphic designer took a funny turn and six years later I’ve amassed somewhere in the region of 20 tonnes of equipment to ‘design with’.

But the passion for putting ink on paper goes way back to when I was a teenager making ridiculous skate/punk fanzines – that stuff really opened my eyes to a world that was full of possibilities, and as soon as I’d scraped through my exams with enough passes to get into the local art college to study graphic design I was off like a shot.

[The Korrex Nürnberg in action, filmed at The Print Project.]

What's the best thing about working with letterpress? And what's the hardest aspect of working in this way?
I’ve always been crap at making things, and somehow working on a Mac made that all the less painful. I could mouse about and make a godawful mess and not worry if it fell apart. Letterpress by comparison is all about working with your hands, grappling with physics and engineering, molten lead, tonnes of type, heavy oily machinery that will either rip your arm off, take your eyes out or break your toes (if you’re not careful).

It’s not for the faint-hearted and I’m utterly convinced you have to be completely insane to want to do it well (and right), considering what you can do with a computer nowadays. A digital Pandora’s Box has been well and truly opened – so what if you remove that temptation to be able to ‘do everything’ and just work with what you have? This is what letterpress can offer and it’s been a revelation for me, completely revolutionising how I approach a design project (both on and off screen).

But it’s also meant I’ve had to be able to keep on top of thousands upon thousands of small bits of metal and wood type and a great deal more besides. Letterpress is all physical – there is no Cmd-Z/undo button, what you take out you have to put back. Things that take minutes on a computer can take days on press and this is undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of what I do.

Do you know the history of your letterpress machines?
The idea that the type has been through countless pairs of hands over the years is mindblowing. As for presses, I’ve had quite a few over the years; one was used at the Normanton Advertiser, my first Heidelberg was dropped by the movers and ended up as scrap. My Autovic was saved from a house that was due for demolition with minutes to spare. My Ludlow was saved from the scrapman one wet and miserable New Year's Day and apparently some of my wood type comes from Albert Wainwright's printers.

Why is it important to keep this kind of tradition alive?
In the grand scheme of things messing about with tiny pieces of metal to make words in 2016 could be considered utterly pointless given the processing power of the digital tools that we have at our fingertips, but you know, they said vinyl (and cassettes) were dead and film photography had gone the way of the dinosaurs but neither of them have. These archaic ‘dead technologies’ obviously appeal to a great number of people who may not have even been born when the technologies were at their peak, so what does that tell us about ourselves?

[Printing a Golden Cabinet poster with the Ludlow machine.]

We swear we have a physical reaction to your posters for Golden Cabinet. Do you choose the colours with a sensory response in mind?
The only way I can explain how it happened is it’s like two worlds colliding that have had a major influence on me over the years – the mindblowing 60s/70s psychedelia of Barney Bubbles, Oz magazine, Monty Python and the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky smashing headfirst into the International Typographic Style and modernism of Emil Ruder, Max Huber, Max Bill and Josef Müller-Brockmann, etc. The sole intention was to produce a visually striking poster through the use of repeating patterns, overlays and over-the-top ink colours that jump off the paper they are printed on and poke you in the eyes. Once they are on a wall in a room they start playing tricks on you, and as long as they do that I feel like my work is done.

What has been the highlight of your work so far?
Probably gonna be a bit obvious here and say the Golden Cabinet posters, which went on for three years, as I learned so much while doing them – it was such a big part of my working life each month, from the design stage to the production and printing which sometimes went horribly wrong (like the Demdike Stare posters that were still wet at the gig).

The ones you can see here are from the 2015-2016 series that utilise the same colourways as the years before but are a lot freer and more relaxed than the earlier posters. Joe from Hey Colossus was ribbing me not so long ago about how the band names had gotten smaller and the images had gotten bigger as time had moved on (ha! true!). Hearing things from bands like ‘we only wanted to play so we could get one of these bad boys’ – it’s been amazing, weird and humbling all at the same time.

Then you’ve got Pattern Man which was a collaborative piece of work with a poet, a book binder, two musicians and a printing co-operative to visualise Pattern Man in response to the written work of Leeds-based poet Rick Holland (who's previously worked with Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins). Pattern Man is a wild and crazy ride that speaks volumes about who we are as people in 2016. Rick had seen some earlier work I did at [book shop and gallery] Colours May Vary and was crazy enough to want to get me involved in producing something for his third book that utilises an eye-melting moiré pattern in two colours. 

What's been your biggest challenge as an independent studio?
Keeping warm. Keeping on top of everything. But mostly just figuring out how to not die has been pretty good.

Where do you find design inspiration?
Crap books, hideous architecture, horrible wallpaper and manhole covers.

Which other studios' work do you admire?
I don’t follow graphic design studios in the way I used to, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Experimental Jetset, Non Format, 8vo/Muir McNeil. Then in the world of letterpress I’m drawn to those that are pushing the boundaries of letterpress… and I’m biased because some of these people are my friends: Typoretum, Nomad Letterpress, Ian Gabb, Armina Ghazaryan, Brad Vetter, Marta dos Santos, Dafi Kühne and Bunker Type, to name a few.

Do you feel part of a design community in Leeds / the North? If so, how would you describe the scene?
Not a design community as such, more of a creative one that encompasses illustrators, designers, developers, artists, print makers, activists, musicians etc., and that scene is probably completely imagined and in my own head but it's a nice place to go to when I need to!

There’s no denying Leeds has the local and national pull for people who want to get into the creative industries, which has in turn created a scene that is full to the brim with all manner of inspiring and thought-provoking people. Leeds Print Workshop looks set to be a great asset to the city, and closer to home I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of the brand spanking new Assembly Bradford located in Bradford’s Northern Quarter, which is also where Fuse Art Space, The Sparrow, BCB Radio and The Record Cafe are located.

Who would be your dream client/collaboration?
I love making posters and prints and I really need to make more books, so something that involves all of those and music would suit me down to the ground. I’ve often joked on about contact-micing up the Heidelberg and seeing what fun could be had with that (when it's been running for a while it sounds like some kind of primitive techno), so…watch this space, as they say. 

What's next for you guys – what are you working on currently?
Double Dagger – a 12-page broadside focusing on the role of letterpress in today's digital age and printed entirely from hot-metal and wood type. Double Dagger launches at the Whittington Press open day on 3 September, priced at £10:

Letterpress workshops – our autumn/winter program of courses is now online and begins in September. If you’ve ever wanted to have a go at letterpress printing in a well-stocked workshop, now’s your chance!

Tap Type – Tap room typography via Magic Rock Brewing, coming Autumn 2016. 

And finally: what advice do you have for would-be letterpress resurrectors?
Don’t! It’ll ruin your life if you let it! Just look at what it’s done to me!

But seriously – make sure you have enough room, your ear to the ground and a stack of cash. Letterpress printing is an ugly, dirty, smelly, back-breaking business; it’s far from ‘cute’, takes ages to master, and if you are prepared to go the long haul with it it’s an entirely liberating and crazy ride that’ll take you to hell and back, grinning like a ninny.